ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — When a Roman Catholic bishop killed himself recently to protest Pakistan's use of the death sentence for those found to have insulted Islam, he focused world attention on the country's tough blasphemy laws.
In this largely Muslim country, the law prescribes the death penalty for those charged with insulting Islam or its prophet, Muhammad. Largely ignored when it came into effect 14 years ago, the law has been strictly enforced in the past four years, thanks to the rise of militant Muslim groups.
Bishop John Joseph committed suicide May 6, outside a court in Punjab province, which had sentenced to death a fellow Catholic, Ayub Masih, charged with blasphemy.
Almost one week later, the United States House of Representatives passed a bill requiring the president to impose sanctions on countries that deny freedom of worship. The bill is being considered by the Senate. The State Department called on Pakistan to repeal the blasphemy law.
But some leaders from Pakistan's small Christian minority are worried the US measure might provoke Muslim militants into harsher actions. "It's possible that a backlash here would be stronger," says a Christian missionary, who asked not to be named.
Human rights activists say the accusation against Mr. Masih was based on testimonies from complainants rather than evidence collected through independent police investigation.
Pakistan's human rights commission says that several other non-Muslims also have been sentenced under the law amid dubious circumstances. "The provision [for blasphemy] is known to have been widely abused. It has provided a handle to fanatical sentiment and has served as an instrument for mischief and personal malice," a commission report stated.
Pakistan's government defends the law, noting that no one convicted of blasphemy has been put to death. Pakistan's law minister, Khalid Anwar, agrees the law has been abused. "People for personal enmity do try and file false cases," he said.
Critics of the law argue that the social climate is hostile to non-Muslim minorities. Officials, requesting anonymity, said they have taken steps to improve enforcement of the law, asking police to verify evidence thoroughly before charges are made.